An exhibit of historic treasures opens for tourists while the State House is closed for renovations

Making space for Maryland's past

April 11, 2008|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,Sun reporter

Maryland's State House always undergoes a drastic transformation in April, when all the adrenaline that flowed through the halls during the General Assembly session is replaced, overnight, by silence.

But with the national historic landmark closed to visitors and workers until January, the mood this year is almost funerary. Moving trucks surround the centuries-old building as workers clean out their offices, exhuming a sea of paper, the detritus of frenzied lawmaking built up year after year, to be boxed up or recycled.

"It is very strange," said Mimi Calver, the state's director of exhibits and artistic property. "It's the first time in many, many years" that the State House will closed.

Calver is one of several state researchers and historians preparing an exhibit for the House office building not far away that will provide visitors with a pictorial tour of State House lore. Titled Four Centuries of History in the Maryland State House, the exhibit will give some of the millions of tourists who come to Annapolis - many with the State House as their primary destination - an alternative to the closed structure. It opens Monday.

One of the many moving parts in the renovation and exhibit project, a life-size mannequin of George Washington, was strapped to a hand truck yesterday and moved from its home in the old Senate chamber in the State House and across Lawyer's Mall to rest near the front door of the House office building.

Gloria G. Lawlah, the secretary of aging in Gov. Martin O'Malley's Cabinet, went to see Washington, who stands on a small platform, wearing his blue Continental Army uniform. The mannequin was placed in the old chamber where, in 1783, Washington resigned his commission as commander of the Continental Army.

Upon hearing of Washington's intentions, King George III, whose forces had just been defeated by the general, famously remarked: "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world."

That moment, described by many historians as one of the seminal events in American history because Washington affirmed the primacy of civil authority over the military, had always been a cause for reflection during her time as a state senator, Lawlah said.

"He looks better here than he did in there," Lawlah said, noting that her grandson came excitedly to Annapolis two years ago to see the mannequin in the famous chamber. "It just makes you wonder at all that happened here."

The primary reason for the State House closure is a $9 million project to refurbish the building's internal plumbing system, a project that has been delayed for years. The need for the repairs has intensified as the pipes have grown more corroded in the past decade, according to the Department of General Services, which is managing the renovation.

That department began restoration of the State House in 1997 and has since replaced the acorn on top of the dome and the fire alarm and sprinkler system, repaired windows and refinished worn surfaces. Pending approval from the Board of Public Works, additional renovations are likely to restore the old Senate and House of Delegates chambers. The Senate chamber is designed to look as it did during the Colonial era, and officials want to restore the House chamber to the way it looked in the mid-19th century.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who loves to regale his colleagues with Maryland history and to search through eBay auctions in search of state artifacts, said he is "extremely enthused" about the renovation.

Restoring those rooms, even down to the detail of the plaster and the chair rails, would be invaluable to visitors, he said. They could better experience the time when Washington resigned his commission, or the celebration that followed, when "he danced with all the ladies and they consumed much spirits and all kinds of Maryland delicacies," Miller said.

"I fit into the grooves of the marble steps walking up from the basement to my office every day, and I think about all the people that walked on those steps before me," he said. "I just get a chill. There's been so much change over the years."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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